For a long time, I have heard that visibility is what would finally allow transgender people to be accepted. Tell our stories, be heard, and then people might start believing we’re real people. GLAAD board member Jennifer Boylan has frequently quoted her mother as saying, “It is impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” She’s right. But it is not enough to accept people. And therein lies the rub.
Never have transgender people been so visible in our culture. With Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Transparent, athletics, runway models, and more, we’re seemingly everywhere, and it is still not enough. The ubiquity of anti-transgender “bathroom bills” shows how much people still loathe and fear us. When the word “transgender” comes up, “sexual predators” is seemingly never far behind.
Most people may no longer feel comfortable actively and vocally hating us, but they still don’t want to share space with us. In restaurants, bathrooms, locker rooms, sports teams, schools, and the workplace, the omnipresent message is “You’re not wanted here.”
We can tell our stories and even be heard, but it changes nothing. School board members in Gloucester, Va., praised transgender student Gavin Grimm for telling his story to them. Minutes later they voted 6-1 to ban him from most school bathrooms.
The American public knows damn well we’re here. They just don’t know any of us. A pair of recent surveys found that people are more likely to have “seen” a ghost than met a transgender person. Ninety percent of people know an LGB person, but only 16 percent know someone who is transgender. It doesn’t help that the only stories the public wants to hear about transgender people are the ones they have come to expect and spawned the transgender documentary drinking game. Apparently, we’re no fun if you can’t point and laugh at us. People would much rather watch a train wreck of a life than someone different doing just fine.
One of the very few things that can break this mind-set and make cisgender (no-trans) people stand up for transgender people, is actually having a close friend, family member, or partner who is transgender. This was illustrated in the Web series Her Story when a group of cisgender people talk about transgender people in episode 2. What comes out is a lot of transphobia, with the one character who is sympathetic to transgender people remaining silent.
It wasn’t until that cis woman entered into a romantic relationship with a transgender person that she was willing to stand up to transphobia. Until a transgender person matters to you in a personal way, most people will treat their issues as “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
This is why the fiercest transgender allies in America are the parents of transgender children. Wayne Maines and Debi Jackson were both conservative, religious Republicans before their children turned out to be transgender girls. Suddenly, with their own loving, beloved, and vulnerable children under attack from the same conservatives they used to agree with, they turned and fought. In the process of loving, accepting, and protecting their children, they were finally able to empathize with transgender people as a whole.
These anecdotes encapsulate why polling suggests most people are still against sharing a bathroom with a transgender person. They have been told over and over again by the right wing that men will pretend to be transgender in order to sexually assault women and children. When activists (correctly) point out that this is groundless fearmongering, the public doesn’t know who to believe. So they do a mental calculation: Do I protect people I know from a danger that (probably) isn’t real or protect people I have never met, never will, and can’t empathize with?
As a result, transgender people almost invariably lose when our basic human dignity is put up for a popular vote. Why? While we may be visible, we are only 0.3 percent of the population. This means that forging enough close relationships with people to motivate them to stand up for us en masse and trying to create a bloc of trans allies exceeding 50 percent of the population is likely to be an exercise in mathematical futility.
If that’s true, then what is the answer? Three-quarters of statehouses are controlled by Republicans. The U.S. House of Representatives districts have been so effectively gerrymandered by the Republican Party that we may not see trans-friendly politicians in charge until the 2030s.
We can hold the line with what allies we have. Put forward authority figures like the police, military officers, and sexual assault victim advocates who will help negate some of the most outrageous narratives. We can go places where we have protections and work to pull other queer folks out of the places where people think WWJD stands for “Who Would Jesus Destroy?”
We can pursue a science-based movement that holds the line or even moves it forward through targeted policy change and impact litigation where poll numbers hold little sway. In places where we are losing ground, we will make them pay for every inch in litigation and peaceful but disruptive direct action.
A mentor of mine once remarked we cannot just be “those people who sue you.” We must strive to be the people you know: parents, children, friends, mentors, and partners. We must be the people who hold the moral high ground. We must be the people who fight these battles smartly, and utilize cost imposing strategies. We must be the people who speak up, act out, and do not go gentle into that good night when our human rights and dignity are threatened.
Failing all that, we will be “those people who sue you.”
Brynn Tannehill graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 before serving as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas. She later worked as a senior defense research scientist in private industry; she left the drilling reserves and began transitioning in 2010. Since then, she has written for OutServe, The New Civil Rights Movement, Salon, Everyday Feminism, The Good Men Project, Bilerico, and The Huffington Post.